The Artist’s Inspiration: Alma Mahler’s Influence on Oskar Kokoschka’s Work


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Jane Larson

Professor Anne Ulmer

03. 02. 06
The Artist’s Inspiration:

Alma Mahler’s Influence on Oskar Kokoschka’s Work

Many artists have an inspiration—for some, inspiration is found in the water droplets on a flower after a rain, for others is music that is their inspiration, for Leonardo da Vinci it was Mona Lisa. Oskar Kokoschka’s inspiration was Alma Mahler. Although Kokoschka’s work was well known before he met her, she was the woman who essentially made him the famous artist that he is today, and shaped his work to go in directions he may have never considered if he had never met her.

Kokoschka was born in the small town of Pöchlarn in Austria-Hungary in 1886. He started at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna and studied drawing, lithography, and bookbinding. He enjoyed drawing thin figures where one could see their bones and joints which made him subject to comparison with Egon Schiele, a slightly younger contemporary, but Kokoschka did not like the comparison and “was of the opinion that women were [Schiele’s] downfall” (Keegan 27). As he put it, “Schiele always had swarms of girls about him, women, hangers-on, it began even when he was still at the academy. They were his undoing” (Keegan 27). This statement is perhaps telling of how Kokoschka viewed women at the time. Other works that give insight into his views of women before he met Alma Mahler include Mörder Hoffnung der Frauen and Die träumenden Knaben.

Alma Mahler and Kokoschka met in 1912. Although Alma was recently widowed, they had an intense relationship from day one when her stepfather introduced them and Kokoschka was supposed to draw Alma. The accounts of their first encounter, however, are a bit at odds. She recalls, “We hardly spoke – and yet he seemed unable to draw. We got up. Suddenly, tempestuously, he swept me into his arms. To me it was strange, almost shocking kind of embrace; I did not respond at all. And precisely that seem to affect him” (Mahler Werfel, 72-3). He proposed to her in a letter that very day. Kokoschka recalls:

When she then proposed that I paint her portrait at her home, I was at once overjoyed and perturbed. For one thing, I had never painted a woman before who seemed to have fallen in love with me at first sight; and for another I felt certain shyness and apprehension: how could one man find happiness where another had so recently died? (Kokoschka, My Life, 73)

Kokoschka’s parents as well as Adolf Loos were less than thrilled about the relationship. Through the letters Kokoschka and Alma would write to each other were just as intense as their relationship. They were both very possessive of each other. In exchange for vowing to be Kokoschka’s full-time muse, she demanded that she was the only woman in his life. At the time, there was a woman artist named Lotte Franzos sharing Kokoschka’s studio. When Alma first came to visit, she found Franzos painting at her easel. Kokoschka recalls, “Alma didn’t say a single word, nothing – she just packed up Lotte’s easel, and everything else that belonged to her, and threw it all out” (Keegan, 62). Kokoschka was no less obsessed. He would prowl outside street of her home late into the night, watching for male callers. The strong passion and obsession illustrated here between the couple led to ups and downs within their relationship that is evident in Kokoschka’s work.

It was during this time that Carl Moll, the artistic director of the Viennese gallery Mietke at the time, commissioned a painting to be shown at an exhibition in Dresden. For this painting Kokoschka created Heimsuchung. It is a painting of a large seated nude in front of a Lilliputian landscape. The body is of a man, but the face is undoubtedly Alma’s. And the original title for the painting was Kauernde weibliche Akt and it was renamed Heimsuchung in 1916 when it was shown in Berlin, because it was as he felt,
”it was essentially a study of melancholy” and of course 1916 was after the time that he and Alma had split (Keegan 64). During the same time that he painted Heimsuchung, he also painted Doppelakt: Zwei Frauen. In this painting, one woman has Ruebenesque curves and the other stands with the fit body of an athlete. Both nudes, however, are touching their hair and both women share Alma’s facial features with a background of jewel-like tongues of flickering paint.

Another set of works that feature Alma, but also illustrate the ups and downs of their affair is a series of twelve lithographs titled Der gefesselte Kolumbus, which he made after a rendezvous with Alma in Munich where they met and as Alma put it, “loved and quarreled and saw a film about Christopher Columbus” (Mahler Werfel, 76). The series was to present his side of their relationship. After they returned from their trip, Alma was pregnant with his child and convinced him to let her get an abortion, which he was very much against and “which [he] never forgave” (Kokoschka 77). Although she claims in her autobiography that she thought she was pregnant when they returned, but she was mistaken. Despite the quarreling, Alma continued to be Kokoschka’s muse, and he created two double-portraits of them. In the first they are both clothed, and not touching each other. In the second, they are both nude, entwined in a dance-like, tango-looking pose in a variety of colors. A dove sits to their left, watching them; perhaps a symbol of his hope for peace in their relationship.

Perhaps Kokoschka’s most well-known piece, Die Windsbraut, or Bride of the Wind, was created when Alma went away on a trip to Bohemia and promised that she would marry him if he painted a masterpiece while she was away—that’s exactly what he did. It is a canvas full of many colored swirls and the two of them wrapped in an embrace. She sleeps peacefully with her head on his shoulder and he lies awake, starring off into the array of colors. He wrote to Alma while she was away describing the painting:

Slowly – but with constant improvements – the picture advances toward completion. The two of us with very strong, clam expression, clasping each other’s hands, framed by a semi-circle of sea lit up by fireworks, a water-tower, mountains, lightening, and the moon. Until the mass of small details once more resolved themselves into the idea I originally had, and I was able to express the mood I wanted by reliving it – what it means to make a promise! Despite all the turmoil in the world, to know that one person can put eternal trust in another, that two people can be committed to themselves and other people by an act of faith (Keegan, 69).

The original name for the painting was Tristan und Isolde, but was renamed by the poet George Trakl, after seeing it just as the finishing touches were added. He was struck by the piece and in mourning of his twin sister. Upon seeing the painting, he began to say a little poem to himself and then motioned toward the canvas calling it Windesbraut. He was then satisfied with his creation and wrote to Herwarth Walden, a long time buyer of his paintings to tell him that it was his strongest and greatest piece of work, a masterpiece of all Expressionist endeavors. This may sound a bit exaggerated, but none the less, Walden decided to buy the painting.

Upon returning from her trip Alma found Kokoschka behaving increasingly erratic and seemed to have no intention of keeping her promise of marriage. She describes this time in her autobiography:

On my return to Vienna I found the walls of his studio painted black. Two lamps, one red and one blue, illuminated the two parts of the room, and the black walls were covered with white crayon sketches. He himself was in a so strange and dangerous a state of mind that – paraphrasing Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister – I insisted that we should see each other only once every three days. It was in self-protection that gradually relaxed our bonds, at least the bonds of habit (Mahler Werfel, 78).

By the spring of 1914 she had written to Walter Gropius, with whom she had an earlier affair with towards the end of her husband Gustav Mahler’s life. Another friend of hers, former boss and married man, Paul Kammerer, too, had romantic intentions and left glass tanks full of mating toads at the house for her, much to Kokoschka’s rage. So in many ways, their relationship was unraveling while Kokoschka’s career was climbing. It was for this reason that Kokoschka paid little attention when on June, 28th 1914 when a Serbian patriot shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand dead.

Soon after, however, Kokoschka joined the Army for a variety of reasons. The Austrian military soon realized that this quarrel was going to take longer than expected and Kokoschka, at age twenty-eight, realized that he was up for conscription. Noting that he would “be able to murder some people… without a qualm”, he decided to volunteer rather than wait for his inevitable call-up (Keegan 74). When Kokoschka decided to join, all parties, including his mother, Adolf Loos, and Alma herself, could not have been happier, because it got him away from Alma Mahler. Kokoschka was able to join a more prestigious group of the Army, the Dragoons, because of connections that Adolf Loos had. The Dragoons were normally reserved for those from wealthy aristocratic or the imperial family. During that time he wrote Alma frequently, but soon she stopped writing and he was confused and devastated, he wrote, “I snatched you away for a short time from the life you believe to be right for you, but I realized what I’d done, and gave you back your complete freedom to decide for yourself what you wanted…Write to me, please, only about how you are and only when you feel love towards me, so that it ceases to be a burden to you” (Kokoschka Letters, 68). Alma, at the time, was taking trips with Walter Gropius, whom she would soon marry. Kokoschka’s years with the army took him many places, first to training, then to Lemberg, the capital of Austrian Galicia which is now Lviv in the Ukraine, and from there to eastern front where he nearly died from a bayonet wound to the chest and a bullet to the head. The Viennese papers prematurely reported his death. He was then taken to a hospital in Brunn, now Brno, near Vienna for recovery and eventually ended up back in a Viennese hospital where word of Alma’s marriage to Gropius filtered through. After being released from the hospital in February of 1916, but not being fit enough to return to the front, he was drafted as a liaison officer to escort journalists and war artists on the Italian front, but in August he was severely shell-shocked when the Italians blew up a bridge as his group approached it. He was sent to a military hospital for a short time and then returned to Vienna, he then went to Berlin where he was commissioned by Herwarth Walden to do a portrait of his second wife, because Kokoschka had done so well with the one of his first wife, but he was really hoping for a professorship in Dresden or Dramstadt, somewhere where he could perhaps make a fresh start and leave his thoughts of Alma behind.

After suffering bouts of illness, as a result from his head injury, he ends up moving into a Sanatorium in Dresden for seven months during which time he wrote and put on a few plays, including Orpheus and Eurydike, and painted a couple portraits. It was also during this time that he began painting Orpheus and Eurydike, “whose myth had already inspired him to capture in words the pain and loss of his parting from Alma Mahler” (Keegan, 97). In the painting, a man and a woman are seated near each other. The man is naked and his eyes gaze hopelessly at the fully-clothed woman next to him looking indifferent. Behind the two figures lies a representation of Hades, the mythical underworld. Around the same time, 1917, Kokoschka painted Liebespaar mit Katze. Although the man and woman who sat for him were his acquaintances, his feelings of bitterness towards Alma shine through. In this oil study, the man and the woman sit estranged with the man holding his arm out for the woman, who turns away from him, holding in her limbs.

It was in 1918 that Kokoschka first began his correspondence with Hermine Moos, whose exhibitions he had attended in Dresden, and who had served as a one-time dressmaker for his beloved. He commissioned her for an interesting project—a life-sized doll in the likeness of Alma Mahler. He sent her numerous amounts of drawings and letters specifying details and requesting the closest approximation to a life-like form; “On my drawing I have somewhat schematically indicated the planes and the resultant hollows and folds, which I regard as important. I can scarcely wait to se how you will fashion the skin […] Please make it possible for the sense of touch to reveal in those places where layers of fat or muscle suddenly yield to the sinewy integument, through which a bony prominence may be felt – the shins, the pelvis, the shoulder-blade, the collarbone the arm joints. […] The skin will probably have to be made of the thinnest fabric available, gossamer silk or the very finest linen, and will have to be built up in small patches” (Keegan, 105-6). After months of waiting, he finally received some photographs of the doll and he sent her his reactions:

The hands and feet still have to become better articulated. Just take your own hand as a model. Or think of the hand of a cultivated Russian lady, say a horsewoman. And the foot should be something like that of a dancer, say Karsavina.

You must also take into account that, even bare, the hands and feet should exert an element of fascination – they should be alive and sensitive rather than dead lumps. It should be possible to fit her with a stylish lady’s shoe – in fact, I have accumulated a whole store of lingerie and clothing in Vienna for that purpose. […] Will she be able to open her mouth? Does she have teeth and a tongue? I would be overjoyed…

Please give some more detail to the bust! The nipples are not to be raised, but should rather be a bit uneven, prominent only on the account of the swell itself (Keegan 110-1).

Moos, who was accustomed to the particularities of her clients, continued working on the doll to make modifications. In the meantime Kokoschka worked on a few paintings, Die Heiden, Selbsbildnis (Hand an dem Mand Gelegt), and Die Macht die Musik. The first painting, Die Heiden, completed a series of three and went with Liebespaar mit Katze and Orpheus and Eurydike. In the second painting, his self portrait, Kokoschka, dressed in black, looks gaunt and pale against an ominous looking sky. This portrayal speaks to his inner turmoil and lack of reconciliation with Alma, which contrasted starkly with the third painting, Die Macht der Musik, that Kokoschka described as deriving “from the motif, because the summons of the trumpet flashes yellow in the painting, which in its vast, glowing mass of color…begins to stir like a living organism that is roused to action” (Keegan, 113).

The doll was finally finished in April 1919 and did not live up to the expectations that Kokoschka had for his fetish object. He made a particular fuss about the skin of the doll. He wrote Moos saying:

What shall we do now, your doll…has quite taken me aback. […] The outer shell is a polar-bear pelt, suitable for a shaggy imitation bedside rug rather than the soft and pliable skin of a woman…Then there is the skeleton. I asked you repeatedly to reinforce it with glue or something of the kind; but soon upon arrival it grew so soft that arms and legs now dangle like stockings stuffed with flour rather than resembling limbs of flesh and bone…Yet this was the crucial element to enable me to use the doll as a model…indeed this was the very reason why I had her made […] In closing this account of deficiencies, I must tell you that my apprehensions about the discrepancies in the proportions as against those shown in my drawing, proved to be only too well grounded. The arms have no real shape, the upper arms and forearms being quite at odds. The knees seem to be afflicted with elephantiasis, and the legs have no style at all. The result is that I cannot even dress the doll, which you knew was my intention, let alone array her in delicate and precious robes. Even attempting to pull on one stocking would be like asking a French dancing-master to waltz with a polar bear (Keegan, 115).

The outer layer of the doll was not actually a polar bear pelt, but rather swanskin, which was still far from the fine linen and silk that Kokoschka had recommended and would give the doll more of the naturalism that it could have possessed. But looking at his requests for the doll, one realizes that it would be next to impossible for anyone to create the likeness and life-likeness that Kokoschka demanded. It is however hard to ignore the fact that the doll did stray so much from Kokoschka’s request, which begs the question, which of these defects resulted from Moos’ failed attempts to accommodate Kokoschka’s instructions, and which of the demands did she deliberately ignore or thwart? How Moos actually reacted to this strange commission, we will never know. Moos’ replies to Kokoschka’s letters were not saved and after the removal of Jewish names from the community records during the infamous Kristallnacht of November, 8th 1938, her name disappeared. Despite Kokoschka’s disappointment with the doll, he did not send it back and it was promptly put to use. He even hired a woman to be the doll’s maid to cloth and service her. He painted The Woman in Blue. His reaction was conflicted and he describes it in his autobiography, “Now the cloth-and-sawdust effigy, in which I vainly sought to trace the features of Alma Mahler, was transfigured in a sudden flash of inspiration into a painting – The Woman in Blue. The larva, after its long winter in the cocoons, had emerged as a butterfly” (Kokoschka My Life, 117).

The Woman in Blue is a half-length portrait of full-breasted figure wearing a blue dress that is pulled down exposing her breasts. Her face looks at the viewer as she props herself up on one arm, sitting amongst pillow and sheet-looking forms. The background is made up of rich blues and greens in undefined shapes and includes what looks to be representative of the figure’s shadow. Kokoschka may have been looking for some shock value with the exposed breasts. One source points out the painting’s attempt to respond to Manet’s 1863 painting of the nude prostitute Olympia. Kokoschka’s figure, however provocative, is not naked, only partially. The figure is also not a prostitute, but rather a fetish or sex doll. The title of the piece is “Woman” in Blue, but there is no doubt this is the doll with its disjointed arms and resemblance to Alma Mahler. Kokoschka tries to pass off the doll as a woman in his painting, just as he tries to pass off the doll as a real replacement for the real woman and muse in his life.

While he was working on this painting Alma requested her letters back from him and he sends them in accordance with her wishes along with a letter in June. He ends the letter with “But it was far from being my wish to hurt you. Better that I should stop breathing first. Farewell, Oskar” (Kokoschka, Letters, 74). His pain was eased by his work with the Alma of his own, and exciting news was on its way.

In August of 1919 Kokoschka was offered the position that he had waited so long to get—a professorship at the Dresden Academy. This rebel, who at one time had been banned from teaching at any public school by the Austrian Ministry of Culture, had now gotten the recognition he deserved. At the academy he was known for his eloquence and passion in presenting painting and drawing, never talked about modern painting, but rather about the wonders of the human form. “The students of the Academy were delighted to have such an avant-garde writer and painter in their midst. The position provided him with a large beautiful studio above the Elbe River overlooking Dresden. The director of the Dresden Museum of Art invited him to share his house, one of the eight Baroque lodges that surrounded the palace in the Grosser Garten so Kokoschka also had great accommodations. He was living the life.

During that time rumors began to spread of a scandalous relationship between the Academy’s new professor and mystifying woman who lived with him. She had been seen at the opera, in carriages, at a window, and in other places which fuelled speculation and furthered the gossip. He painted two other portraits of the doll, although whether or not they were painted while he was in possession of the doll is debatable. The first painting is Maler mit Puppe and the second is Oskar Kokoschka at the Easel. In the painting Maler mit Puppe the doll sits in front of the painter with its clothes removed. Its extreme light color and some of the blockish strokes allude to the white feathery/furry skin that the doll had. The painter holds his left hand on the doll’s raised knee and points with his right hand at the doll’s genitals or lack thereof. The position of the doll and Kokoschka both are a bit unclear. Are his legs under the doll or are they pillows and both figures are missing their necks, have oversized heads, and are a bit contorted. The title itself also adds to the puzzle. Maler as a pun of Mahler plays with the idea of which figure is Maler/Mahler and which is the doll/puppet. The second painting, Oskar Kokoschka at the Easel, depicts an almost full-length self-portrait, where Kokoschka holds up a paintbrush in front of an easel that corresponds to the edge of the canvas. The doll sits on the left side of the painting on a shelf in the studio that makes up the background. Contrary to the former painting, Kokoschka depicts himself as the central image although he is the least naturalistic image in the painting with a shortened, out of proportion arm that appears to be on backward and his head so low that his shoulders are above his ears creating a sever hunch-back effect. Although his writings create the impression of increasing self-confidence as the doll disappeared from his life, the painting depicts an automatization of the deteriorating artist and the large influence that the doll had on his work. Without the doll, or with the doll playing a much smaller role in his work, he becomes less of an artist and illustrates those feelings in this self-portrait from 1922.

The doll eventually came to its demise through a strange series of events. Kokoschka’s landlord’s father died and he insisted that Kokoschka immediately draw his deceased father who lay in the attic of the house. Upon finishing, Kokoschka went down to the cellar where there was a cast-iron bathtub. To his surprise, Reserl, the doll’s maid, was in the bath, and ask Kokoschka recalls, “Reserl emerged from the water. With a provocative casualness she said that she simply wanted to take my mind off death” (Keegan, 121). Kokoschka gives two accounts of what happened next. In his story A Sea Ringed with Visions, she gets into his bed, and he declines to cooperate realizing the awkwardness of sleeping with his doll’s maid. In his memoirs however, Reserl is talk is interrupted by the housekeeper calling her name, and she quickly dries off, gets dressed, and continues with her duties.

Regardless, the event must have been significant in some way for Kokoschka, because he eventually threw a champagne party in the doll’s honor where a chamber orchestra from the opera played and the doll was escorted through the party, moving among the guests on Reserl’s arm. The story differs here as well. One source recounts a version where the end of the night, after being passed from drunken hand to drunken hand, the doll’s hand fell off, landing in a pool of red wine. The dustmen then came in the morning and took her away. Another source tells a more violent tale where the doll’s head fell off or was torn off and the body was thrown out a window. Wine-stained, naked, and lying in the street, the police were called about a murder, only to find a doll outside Kokoschka’s house, which was then disposed of the following day. And that was the end to Kokoschka’s infamous Alma Mahler, sex doll, fetish, and painting inspiration, all rolled into one.

By now it should be quite clear that Alma Mahler was Oskar Kokoschka’s muse. He drew a lot of inspiration from her. He even a doll created in her likeness that became the inspiration for more work. And although Kokoschka’s work was well known before he met her, she was the woman who essentially made him into such a well-known artist, and shaped his art to go in directions he may not have, had her never met her. He is known as much for his painting Windesbraut as much as he is known as the “mad Kokoschka” and some people would argue that he is even more famous for his madness in connection with his fetish doll and the doll did not come from the fact that he was inspired by Alma, so much as obsessed with her. The doll itself, however, must be considered an artistic project in itself and puts Kokoschka in the category of a modernist artist. He himself considered the doll to be an artistic project regardless of how it seems. His critics both then and now, loved to tell racy details and speak of fetishism and sex-dolls, creating embellishments of the stories, long after they happened that continue into today so that we see the doll as something created by the crazy and obsessed Kokoschka, recently returning from the war front—not so. There are key facts that lead to this oversight.

The modernist agenda was to bridge the gap between art and life. Kokoschka bridged this gap in a few ways and makes it evident that Kokoschka was not blindly following his obsession, but rather carefully crafting a plan. He had his letters and drawing to Moos regarding the creation of his doll formally published under the title, Fetische and often called the doll “Fetish” in his conversations with people as its name. A significant part of Reserl’s job, his doll’s maid, was to spread rumors about the doll to people in town. He also paid his other servants to spread rumors about the doll to the public. “Kokoschka’s interest in dolls was related to an interest in puppetry, common among the avant-garde artists, especially the Dadaists, with whom Kokoschka was acquainted” in Vienna and also in Sweden where he had a brief hospital stay after the war (Roos, 2). The fact that the “mad Kokoschka” was given a professorship at the Dresden Academy at the time also suggests that his “madness” was recognized as part of an artistic agenda. Further evidence is that at the same time that Kokoschka was corresponding with Moos about the doll, he was working on his play Orpheus and Eurydike, which is based on the Ovidian story that tells of Orpheus’ failed attempts to bring his dead lover to life through art. The attempts to bring life and art together through the use of the doll make the doll not only a material piece of art, but also a piece in a performance, creating performance art, making Kokoschka one of the first performance artists.

The doll serves as a testimony of Kokoschka’s fascination with gender and sexuality in looking at tensions between art and life which fit the agenda of modern art for the period. Publishing an autobiography as well as his letters to Moos, staging events around the doll and having rumors spread about their relationship, as well as using the doll for a model in his work confirm these attempts to in creating modernist and performance art making him very avant-garde. The inspiration for the doll of Alma, and thus, this change in direction of his art, would not have happened without the tumultuous relationship that they had. The works that are usually considered to be his masterpieces also involve Alma, either as the direct subject or the muse. Oskar Kokoschka became the famous artist that his is greatly in part because of Alma Mahler, a chance meeting that created history. An artist cannot predict inspiration.



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